Fact Sheet: US Military Bases in Okinawa

by Joseph Essertier, January 2, 2017

A 2014 Democracy Now feature helped many listeners gain a better understanding of global concerns regarding United States military bases in Okinawa, Japan. Here is more background information about this important topic.

Discrimination toward Okinawans

Okinawans are severely discriminated against by Japanese and Americans. This is, for obvious reasons, an issue that is more frequently brought up at street demonstrations in Japan than in English-language mass media such as the New York Times and the Japan Times. The Japan Times has been a relatively liberal paper and actually covers the anti-base movement in Okinawa more than the major Japanese papers written in Japanese, such as the Mainichi and the Yomiuri, but the Okinawa Times and Ryukyu Shimpo papers cover base-related issues much more thoroughly, and they investigate issues of racism. They are also relatively sensitive to the racism against non-white troops and women in the US military.

The anger that many Okinawans feel toward the Japanese government stems in large part from the way that they are second-class citizens in Japan and how Japanese continue to view them as a colony, a buffer zone, and a section of Japan that can be sacrificed in order to protect the privileges of the safe middle-class Japanese in Honshu (where Tokyo and Kyoto are), Kyushu, and Shikoku. Very few of the people on these main islands live near bases, since 70% of the bases in Japan are in Okinawa Prefecture. Okinawans shoulder the burden of the bases and live with the daily insecurity and noise. The noise of the US military’s Osprey aircraft, which reaches 100 decibels in areas where there are schools and often prevents children from studying while traumatizing them, is symbolic of that discriminatory mentality that sees the sacrifice of Okinawans’ standard of living as natural and proper.

The bases of Okinawa are strategically located

The US used these to attack North Korea and Vietnam, and they can use them again in the future to attack North Korea or China. From the perspective of the people of East Asia, the bases are very intimidating. Many elderly people in East Asian countries today still have vivid, traumatic memories of Japanese aggression during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and the Asia-Pacific War (1941-45), as well as of the fighting between Japanese and Americans. Generally, Okinawans remember it best, but there was a significant amount of violence in major Japanese cities where American troops were in the immediate postwar period under the US Occupation.

In particular, the firebombing of cities with napalm and incidents of sexual violence are and were remembered by elderly Japanese—those few who still are alive today. Okinawans, however, are more sensitive and have much knowledge of the War years. They remember Japanese militarism and ultranationalism, and correctly recognize the present ultranationalist government’s rapid militarization as endangering their lives. As John Pilger has pointed out in his film The Coming War on China, there are hundreds of bases surrounding China that could be used as launching pads for attacks on China. A good number of them are in Okinawa.

Sexual Violence

  1. Since 1972, after Tokyo regained control over Okinawa, there have been over one hundred rape cases reported to police there. In 1972 the Ryukyu Islands and the Daito Islands, which together make up the area of Japan known as Okinawa Prefecture, were “returned” to Japan, i.e., to the government in Tokyo. But before Okinawa was annexed by Japan in 1879, the Ryukyu archipelago had been an independent kingdom, so Okinawans were not all overjoyed to be returned to Japanese control and many continued to long for independence. There are some similarities with the history of Hawai’i, so the independence movements of Okinawa and Hawai’i sometimes collaborate on grassroots political actions. Or so I have heard.
  2. The 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl, which led to a great intensification of the anti-base movement, was just one of hundreds of reported rapes. Of course, the actual number of rapes in Okinawa dwarfs the number of reported rapes, as is the case in Japan in general, where the police often? usually? do not even make a record or a report of rapes when victims attempt to seek justice. Even before 1995, there was already a strong movement against the bases, and a large segment of that movement was led by women’s rights groups in Okinawa. The abuse of children has received a fair amount of focus in Japan during the last 10 years or so and the movement against sexual harassment in Japan gained energy during the 1990s. Some attention is being paid to PTSD in Japan, too. With those kinds of human rights movements gaining strength simultaneously in Japan with the Okinawa struggle for peace in the last 10 years, there is less and less tolerance in Japan for American soldiers’ frequent sexual violence against Okinawan women and children, and occasionally the mass media outside of Okinawa will pay attention to particularly well-documented and horrible cases. Soldiers also sometimes commit acts of sexual violence against Japanese on the four main islands, almost always near bases, such as the Yokosuka base and Misawa in Aomori, but my impression is that there is stricter discipline of soldiers on these islands and it happens far less frequently than in Okinawa—just based on casual observation of newspaper reports over the years.
  3. Kenneth Franklin Shinzato’s recent rape and murder of a 20-year-old Okinawan office worker increased awareness of US military sexual violence across Japan and strengthened  resistance to the bases in Okinawa. 
  4. The bases are supposed to enhance the security of Japanese but with all the rapes and murders that have happened around the bases, and the US escalating tension with other countries, such as North Korea, who could some day target Okinawa bases with long-range missiles, many Okinawans feel that the bases endanger their lives. The vast majority of Okinawans want all the bases off their island. The old argument that the bases are good for the economy does not satisfy many Okinawans these days. Tourism is a big industry in Okinawa. There are a lot of visitors from other parts of Asia, such as Chinese, who spend a lot of money in Japan in general but also in Okinawa. So they have other options for wealth generation, and they are not as materialistic as people on the four main islands anyway. As you may have heard, they have a very healthy diet, and have one of the longest life expectancies in the world.

Illegal Arrests of Innocent Protestors

There has been great public interest in the case of activist Yamashiro Hiroji.  Here are some links that describe the unfair and possibly illegal treatment of him while in detention, as well as his release from prison.

Why is Japan Paying for US Bases?

The burden for paying the costs of the US bases are put on the shoulders of Japanese taxpayers. 15 years ago I heard from one expert and an antiwar activist that Japan pays 10 times as much for the US bases than South Korea or Germany. Japanese are completely in the dark about how much they are being ripped off through their taxes, how great a burden these bases are. Japan’s own “Self-Defense Forces” (Ji ei tai) also entail huge expenses, and Japan spends as much on its military as other countries with similar large populations and economies.

Environmental Consequences

  1. Weapons of mass destruction have been stored in Okinawa for long periods over the course of the last several decades, including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Leaks of chemical and biological weapons have damaged the environment. This has been reported many times. There have also been accidents involving nuclear weapons, causing death or injury to American soldiers there. The story about the nuclear weapons is just starting to come out. The Japanese government lied to its citizens about this.
  2. Okinawa has beautiful coral reefs and the new Henoko base construction has already caused much destruction of the coral reef there. The coral reef will probably be killed completely under and around the base. (Some of the base will extend out into the water).
  3. Construction of the Henoko base threatens to destroy the “last refuge” of the dugongs of Okinawa. The dugong is a large, beautiful, fascinating sea mammal that feeds on sea grass. Okinawan love of nature causes them to put the health of other animals and species at the forefront of their struggle. Many antiwar films in Okinawa begin by talking about the plants and animals living in the sea surrounding Ryukyuan islands, the natural environment that has long been a big part of the Ryukyuan way of life that is threatened by the construction of more bases there. The Henoko and Takae base construction projects remind me of the Exxon Valdez disaster in that sense, and how that disaster ruined the livelihoods and the whole way of life of thousands of Native Americans in Alaska.

Anti-base Activism

85% of Okinawans are against the bases and one of the main reasons there is such strong resistance is that the Okinawans are a peace-loving people. I think it is fair to say that their level of antipathy against militarism is even greater than the level of antipathy against militarism among Japanese in general. (Japanese are generally against war. Certainly there are more Japanese against war in general than Americans against war in general). Okinawans are overwhelmingly opposed to any kind of violence against other people in Asia. They are not just aiming to protect their own lives but are quite sophisticated about war and peace issues and international relations, and the immorality of war is a big part of their anti-war thought. They are keenly aware of how their lands and resources have been used by Japanese to hurt the people of the former colonies of the Japanese Empire and countries that Japan invaded as well as how they have been used by Americans to hurt people in many other countries.

Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution

Japan has a “peace constitution,” unique in the world and generally well-accepted and popular in Japan. Some people have the impression that the constitution was imposed on them by the US Occupation, but in fact, the constitution is consonant with liberal forces that were already in play by the 1920s and 1930s. Article 9 of that constitution actually prohibits Japan from attacking any country unless and until it is attacked first. “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes…In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.” In other words, Japan is not allowed to have a standing army and its “self-defense forces” are illegal. Period.

Some Basic History

In 1879 the Japanese government annexed Okinawa. It had been an independent kingdom, at least in name, but violence against Okinawans and economic exploitation of them by Japanese from the main islands (which encompass Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu) had already become severe in the early 17th century. That exploitation continued until the 1879 annexation, when the government in Tokyo began to directly and completely govern Okinawans and new kinds of exploitation were introduced by the relatively new government in Tokyo, which was led by Emperor Meiji (1852-1912). (Compared to Okinawa, Hokkaido was a relatively new acquisition of the government in Tokyo, and there a genocide of the native people, called Ainu, was committed, not unlike the genocide of Native Americans in the USA and Canada. But Okinawa and Hokkaido were both early experiments in colonization by the Meiji government. Historical periods are named after the emperor. The Meiji Emperor ruled from 1868-1912). Japanese from the Satsuma Domain (i.e., the city of Kagoshima and much of the Island of Kyushu) had dominated and exploited Okinawa for roughly 250 years until the government in Tokyo annexed Okinawa. Many of the elite oligarchs who ran the new government in Tokyo were from powerful warlord families and clans in Satsuma, so many of the descendants of those who had oppressed Okinawans continued to benefit from the exploitation/oppression of Okinawans in “modern Japan.” (The dividing line, separating “premodern Japan” from “modern Japan” is usually 1868, which was when the Meiji Emperor took over control of government from the Shogunate or “bakufu”, i.e., the Tokugawa “shogunate”—essentially a dynasty, although it is not usually called a “dynasty.”)

200,000 Okinawans were killed in the Battle of Okinawa. The Island of Okinawa is approximately the size of Long Island in New York, so this was a large percentage of the people. It was one of the most traumatic events in Okinawan/Ryukyuan history. It led to a sudden and severe degradation of life for the vast majority of the population, as the best land on the prefecture was seized by the US military, and to this day, very little of the land has been returned. The Battle of Okinawa lasted from 1 April until 22 June 1945, and many young Americans, too, lost their lives there. June 23rd, i.e., the day after the last day of the Battle of Okinawa, is called “Okinawa Memorial Day” and is a public holiday in Okinawa. This day is important for Okinawans, and is an important day for antiwar activists throughout Japan, but is not recognized as a holiday outside of Okinawa Prefecture. It is hardly honored, commemorated, or even remembered in any way by most Japanese on the main islands, in spite of the fact that Okinawan lives and properties were sacrificed for the sake of the people on the main islands, and in that sense, people on the main islands are indebted to Okinawans because of how Okinawans have been sacrificed in various ways from 1945 to the present.

The US seized Okinawa Island from the Okinawans in 1945, stole land from Okinawans, built military bases all over the island, and governed it until 1972. But even after the reversion of Okinawa to Japan, the bases continued to exist and violence against the people of Okinawa by American soldiers continued—that is, violence in the form of murders, rapes, etc.

Okinawans are also often referred to as the “Ryukyuan people” by scholars. There are/were a number of dialects spoken throughout the Ryukyuan island chain, so there is cultural diversity even among Ryukyuans (just as there is tremendous cultural diversity throughout Japan. The modern nation-state that formed in 1868 immediately started destroying cultural diversity, aiming to standardize much of the country, but linguistic diversity has stubbornly persisted). The name for Okinawa Island—the main island of “Okinawa Prefecture” in the local language is “Uchinaa”. Use of Ryukyuan dialects is seen frequently in antiwar and anti-base demonstrations by Okinawan protestors, as a way of emphasizing the value of their native culture, recognizing how they have been colonized by mainland Japanese, and showing resistance to that colonization—both actual colonization and the colonization of the mind/heart that leads to the internalization of Japanese discriminatory views of Ryukyuans.

Not widely discussed by historians or other scholars in East Asian studies but very important for understanding both Okinawan history and for Korean history is a document known as “NSC 48/2.” Quoting here from my article in CounterPunch in October, the Open Door Policy led to some wars of intervention, but the U.S. did not actually begin to actively attempt to thwart anticolonial movements in East Asia, according to [Bruce] Cumings, until the 1950 National Security Council report 48/2, which was two years in the making. It was entitled “Position of the United States with Respect to Asia” and it established a totally new plan that was “utterly unimagined at the end of World War II: it would prepare to intervene militarily against anticolonial movements in East Asia—first Korea, then Vietnam, with the Chinese Revolution as the towering backdrop.” This NSC 48/2 expressed opposition to “general industrialization.” In other words, it would be OK for countries in East Asia to have niche markets, but we don’t want them developing full-scale industrialization as the US did, because then they will be able to compete with us in fields where we have a “comparative advantage.” That is what NSC 48/2 termed “national pride and ambition,” which would “prevent the necessary degree of international cooperation.” (https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/10/31/americas-open-door-policy-may-have-led-us-to-the-brink-of-nuclear-annihilation/)

The writing of NSC 48/2 began around 1948. This corresponds roughly with the beginning of what is termed the “Reverse Course,” a big change in US policy toward Japan mainly but also indirectly South Korea. NSC 48/2 and the Reverse Course greatly affected Okinawa, too, since Okinawa was the main base from which attacks on Korea, Vietnam and other countries would be launched. The “Reverse Course” was a stab in the backs of all the people who fought to bring an end to Japanese militarism and colonialism, including the backs of Koreans, who had fought for independence as well as of American soldiers, who had fought during the War against Japan. It was even a stab in the backs of the liberal and leftwing Japanese who had cooperated with MacArthur’s liberalizing policies at the beginning of the Occupation period, during 1945 and 1946. In1947 it was decided that Japanese industry would once again become the “workshop of East and Southeast Asia,” and that Japan and South Korea would receive support from Washington for economic recovery along the lines of the Marshall Plan in Europe. (One major factor here in Washington’s decision to reverse course was the Chinese Communist Party that appeared to be winning during the Civil War in China, as it eventually did in 1949). One sentence in a note from Secretary of State George Marshall to Dean Acheson in January 1947 sums up the U.S. policy on Korea that would be in effect from that year until 1965, “organize a definite government of South Korea and connect up [sic] its economy with that of Japan.” Acheson succeeded Marshall as Secretary of State from 1949 to 1953. He “became the prime internal advocate of keeping southern Korea in the zone of American and Japanese influence, and single-handedly scripted the American intervention in the Korean War.” (Almost all of the information and quotes here come from the writings of Bruce Cumings, especially his book The Korean War). The Reverse Course was similar to the Marshall Plan of Europe and entailed big American investments and sharing of technology and wealth to Japan and South Korea.

The “Korean War” started in June 1950, when the North Korean army “invaded” (their own country) according to the US government narrative, but the hot war in Korea really had already started by early 1949, and there was lots of violence in 1948, too. And more, the roots of this war go back to the divisions that began in 1932 when Koreans began an intense anti-colonialist struggle against Japanese colonizers in Manchuria. Their struggle against Japanese colonialism became a struggle against American neo-colonialism and the dictator Syngman Rhee in the late 1940s. The intense bombing of Korea that killed millions of Koreans in a “holocaust,” and hardly left a building standing in North Korea and also destroyed most of South Korea, could not have been possible without the bases in Okinawa. The bases in Okinawa were also used for the bombing runs to Vietnam.

In 1952 Japan got its sovereignty back by going along with Washington’s demand that Korea and China be excluded from the peace process. This made it difficult for Japan to apologize and engage in reconciliation with its neighbors. Again, the following is a quote from my CounterPunch article: The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John Dower notes one tragic result that followed from the two peace treaties for Japan that came into effect on the day that Japan regained its sovereignty 28 April 1952: “Japan was inhibited from moving effectively toward reconciliation and reintegration with its nearest Asian neighbors. Peace-making was delayed.” Washington blocked peace-making between Japan and the two main neighbors that it had colonized, Korea and China, by instituting a “separate peace” that excluded both Koreas as well as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from the whole process. Washington twisted Japan’s arm to gain their cooperation by threatening to continue the occupation that had started with General Douglas MacArthur (Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964). Since Japan and South Korea did not normalize relations until June 1965, and a peace treaty between Japan and the PRC was not signed until 1978, there was a long delay, during which according to Dower, “The wounds and bitter legacies of imperialism, invasion, and exploitation were left to fester—unaddressed and largely unacknowledged in Japan. And ostensibly independent Japan was propelled into a posture of looking east across the Pacific to America for security and, indeed, for its very identity as a nation.” Thus Washington drove a wedge between Japanese on the one hand and Koreans and Chinese on the other, denying Japanese a chance to reflect on their wartime deeds, apologize, and rebuild friendly ties. Japanese discrimination against Koreans and Chinese is well-known, but few people understand that Washington is also to blame.

In 1953 the Korean War ended with a huge failure. Washington did not win, just as it has not won most of the major wars since 1945. Quoting from my “Let’s Put to Rest These Myths about U.S.-North Korea Relations,” the civil war did not end with a peace treaty and a process of reconciliation but only an armistice in 1953. The armistice left open the possibility of the War being restarted at any time. This fact, that the war did not result in a peaceful resolution of the civil conflict, is only one of its tragedies and it must be considered one of the most brutal wars in modern times. With the armistice, Koreans both north and south have been able to enjoy some peace, but their peace has been temporary and uncertain. There is some disagreement about whether the Korean War (1950-53, the conventional dates for the War that favor a narrative biased in favor of Washington) was a civil war or a proxy war. There are some elements of a proxy war since the US and the Soviet Union were involved, but if one considers the roots of the war, that go back at least to 1932 when serious guerrilla warfare by Koreans against Japanese colonizers in Manchuria began, I by Bruce Cumings that in its essence, it is/was a civil war. One element in this war that is hardly discussed but one extremely important cause of the war is the hope of many Koreans for a fairer distribution of the wealth. In other words, it has not only been a struggle between a government in the north and a Washington-backed government in the south, but the injustice of class (possibly even “caste”) inequality that goes back to premodern times in Korea. Slavery was not abolished until the end of the 19th century, a few decades after it was abolished in the US.


Some Okinawa experts:

  1. Yamashiro Hiroji, one of the most prominent antiwar and anti-base activists in Okinawa, who was recently unfairly and probably illegally detained and mistreated, if not tortured, in prison
  2. Douglas Lummis (http://apjjf.org/-C__Douglas-Lummis)
  3. Jon Mitchell who writes for the Japan Times
  4. John Junkerman, director of excellent film “Japan’s Peace Constitution” (http://cine.co.jp/kenpo/english.html) and other films dealing with Okinawa’s US bases (http://apjjf.org/2016/22/Junkerman.html)
  5. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
  6. Takazato Suzuyo, feminist peace activist (http://apjjf.org/2016/11/Takazato.html)
  7. John Dower, American historian
  8. Gavan McCormack, a historian in Australia
  9. Steve Rabson, former army soldier and US historian: http://apjjf.org/2017/19/Rabson.html
  10. Satoko Oka Norimatsu, the director of the Peace Philosophy Centre, a peace-education organization in Vancouver, Canada, with a widely-read Japanese-English blog peacephilosophy.com
  11. Katharine H.S. Moon, professor of political science who has written about military base sexual violence in East Asia (http://apjjf.org/-Katharine-H.S.-Moon/3019/article.html)
  12. Caroline Norma, one of the top experts on sex trafficking who has written on the sex trafficking industry in Japan from the 1920s and into the 1940s, and how the Japanese government adapted the systems established by the industry to establish its “comfort women” (government-sponsored gang rape) system, she is the author of a new book The Japanese Comfort Women and Sexual Slavery during the China and Pacific Wars (2016).  (http://www.abc.net.au/news/caroline-norma/45286)


Sources of news and analysis:

  1. By far, the most useful English journal for English-speaking antiwar activists is the Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus (http://apjjf.org).
  2. But as mentioned above, the Okinawan English-language papers, such as Okinawa Times and Ryukyu Shimpo, cover the anti-base movement in a much more thorough, in-depth way than the Japan Times or any other English-language papers outside of Okinawa.
  3. SNA Shingetsu News Agency has a relatively new online newspaper that has been providing news from a progressive perspective and they sometimes cover war issues, such as the Japanese government’s recent acceleration of their policies of remilitarization (i.e., developing the kind of military that could once again produce class A war criminals), http://shingetsunewsagency.com
  4. The Asahi Shinbun was the venerable left-leaning newspaper in Japan, but they have abandoned their old commitment to *occasionally* exposing the wrongs of the Japanese government recently and have quit writing about sensitive historical issues, such as the “comfort women” and the Nanking massacre. “The” left-leaning newspaper, the only big one now, is Tokyo Shinbun, but unfortunately, unlike the old revered Asahi, they do not publish in English, to my knowledge. We have been publishing translations of their many excellent articles in Japanese at the Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus (http://apjjf.org).

Music for inspiration:

Kawaguchi Mayumi, singer songwriter and anti-base activist from Kyoto. You can see lots of videos of her singing at demonstrations at YouTube if you search with her name in Japanese: 川口真由美. She is one of the most prominent singers campaigning against the bases, but there are many other excellent, creative musicians who have allied themselves with the movement, producing music in many different genres including folk music, rock, drumming, and experimental music.


3 Responses

  1. Looking at the link to the 2017 rape and murder of an Okinawan by a man named Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, described in the Japan Times article as “a civilian working for an internet company on the premises of Kadena Air Base at the time, after serving as a U.S. Marine from 2007 to 2014, according to his lawyers and the U.S. Defense Department.” It is worth remarking that although he appears to be African-American, his family name, Shinzato, is a common family name in Okinawa. The possible complexities of this case are not mentioned in the article.

    1. Exactly! I have been living in Itoman City in southern Okinawa for two and a half years. This entire article is VERY one-sided and anti-American. It makes numerous exaggerations and gives a very misconstrued picture of the reality that is here.

      1. I was thinking the one way to make sure there is no more war on the island is for Japan and the US to transfer their rights to China (which claims these islands as well)

        I was going to ask if they would be for that, but when I saw that they objected to the characterization the North Korea invaded South Korea I realized there answer would be a loud yes, we want to join communist China.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Our Theory of Change

How To End War

2024 WBW Film Festival
Antiwar Events
Help Us Grow

Small Donors Keep Us Going

If you select to make a recurring contribution of at least $15 per month, you may select a thank-you gift. We thank our recurring donors on our website.

This is your chance to reimagine a world beyond war
WBW Shop
Translate To Any Language